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Things That Sci-Fi Always Gets Wrong

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We all love a slice of science fiction. A TV show, book or movie that throws us into another world, a futuristic existence or onto another planet. And most sci-fi stories require us to suspend our disbelief at least a little bit. But what are the things that sci-fi gets wrong more than anything else? Where are the lines between science fact and science fiction most often blurred?
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Things That Sci-Fi Always Gets Wrong


It’s a genre that often flouts a free pass to create sensational storylines. At times, it goes completely against everything we know about science and reality to achieve some iconic moments. And we as eager viewers quite willingly accept the flashy special effects and techno jargon, often without realising the potential problems or inaccuracies. It’s all part of the fun, right? But there are some things that sci-fi gets more wrong more frequently than others… To the point where diverting from these accepted misconceptions of science is almost seen as a bold, brave and creative move by writers and directors.

For starters, artificial intelligence – one of the trickiest problems of all. What makes AI so hard to represent in popular culture is the fact that (as with most sci-fi concepts) true versions of it don’t currently exist. Even the lauded Sophia, who’s done the chat show circuit and sat down with Will Smith, is essentially a very expensive party trick when all’s said and done. There certainly are people striving to create AIs to help us in the future, but – depending on who you speak to – the likelihood of these computers becoming homicidal killing machines is still fairly low. Scientists are incredibly careful and gradual with their research, and there’s very little chance of a situation like in “The Matrix” or “The Terminator” actually happening – where self-replicating machines take over the world and enslave humanity. In the movies, it feels like every single AI wants to take over the planet. But should we really be so paranoid? If advanced robots operate on a human-level of emotional intelligence (while obviously far surpassing humans intellectually), it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to destroy everything. After all, there aren’t many humans out there who really crave total destruction and world domination. But of course, good, honest and co-operative AI probably don’t especially translate into blockbuster entertainment… Unless you’re Wall-E.

What does offer plenty of potential at the cinema is ‘outer space’. Often overlapping with ideas on AI, it’s another sci-fi staple that’s chronically misrepresented. Arguably the biggest issue is this; in space, explosions are not as they seem or sound. When “Alien” came out with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” Ridley Scott got it right. But since then, it feels as though every other film has had it completely wrong, scattering ear-splitting bangs, crashes and wallops throughout the great void.

A soundwave is a mechanical type of wave; it’s caused by travelling through another medium, like air or water. But, because there’s no air or water in space, there’s no sound. So, the blasts should all be visible, but your speakers shouldn’t be stretched that far. The visual effects in a real-world space explosion depend on all sorts of variables, too. Namely, the presence of oxygen for fire. While short-lived fires are feasibly fuelled by the oxygen from whatever’s just been blown up, a dramatic, drawn-out firestorm isn’t likely. Not that the lack of fire would make an explosion any less fatal; no air means no air resistance, meaning shrapnel travels faster and for longer. That means that a blast in space is potentially even more dangerous than an explosion on Earth. It just wouldn’t look quite as cool on the big screen without a sparkly backdrop.

Naturally, if you scream in space from inside a spaceship with breathable air, you’ll still be heard. So, no problems there. But, if you’re floating in the abyss you’re effectively on mute. That said, if you were screaming in space itself, then you’ve got much bigger problems than simply the volume of your voice – namely that you can’t survive in space without a spacesuit. It takes less than a minute once subjected to the vacuum of space for your insides to break and for you to die – but, unlike the well-pedalled wrongness in the movies, your head won’t explode. You would eventually freeze, though you’d have deceased long before the icicles formed. But, once again the creative reasoning is clear, and kind of obvious: Death by shortage of breath, or death by disintegration of brain? For Hollywood, there’s only one winner there.

Similar issues plague space battles. In “Star Wars”, the enormous, intergalactic dogfights definitely look awesome, but they have pretty much zero scientific validity. These shoot-outs are essentially airplane battles, but earthly planes only work because of things like gravity and air resistance, which again, space doesn’t have. This means that diving, swerving, and doing cool corkscrews in an X-Wing fighter is completely impossible, mainly because of the position of the thrusters. In almost all sci-fi flicks, the thrusters and engines are on the back of the ship, a perhaps logical spot for the casual onlooker. But this would mean that in space they’d only really be able to propel forwards in a straight line – even turning would be tricky. To even try to work-around this, every possible surface of a ship would need to be covered in thrusters. Only then could we achieve the manic manoeuvrability that George Lucas so expertly captures. There might be simpler solutions, as one astrophysicist, Alan R Duffy, has suggested that simply using air jets could achieve “Star Wars” level speed and flexibility… But still, these scenes aren’t exactly overflowing with air jets, are they.

The all-action fighting raises another issue too, and one which requires a rethink for most sci-fi weaponry – lasers. First off, you’d need a pretty massive structure to generate the amount of energy required to fire a deadly laser, meaning you’d struggle to strike a lethal blow from a ship-mounted turret or a handheld blaster. That said, we are dealing with far-future tech here, and suspending our disbelief is kind of the point of sci-fi, so the power thing’s not a huge problem. The fact that you can see lasers, and that they’re seemingly colour-coded, kind of is, though. Because lasers are effectively invisible – such is their speed. That means it’d be difficult to aim and next to impossible to tell if you were about to be hit. But again, besides that scene in “Spaced”, the prospect of watching people shoot invisible ammo probably isn’t about to entice you into buying a movie ticket, is it.

Speaking of sci-fi stuff that shouldn’t be seen but always is: radiation. Radioactive substances typically conjure up a mental image of glowing, green toxic waste, a glowing, green rod, rock or person, or even green-coloured, irradiated air. But there’s no blanket rule that this would always be the case. While radioluminescence does exist and can be green in colour, radiation is more often invisible to us – making the glow but an overused visual cue.

As for the movie world mutations that are typically (often instantly) triggered by radioactive poisoning, they’re not real-world certified either. Even with survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, who suffered massive doses, the extraordinary congenital and visible mutations like you’d see in a mainstream movie just don’t exist. Radiation exposure does bring a higher risk of cancer and several severe health issues, but leading scientists say that it doesn’t cause an entire species to rapidly and inevitably mutate. And getting bitten by a radioactive spider definitely won’t imbue you with Spidey superpowers.

But say you are exposed to intense radiation, or some kind of unknown but contagious disease… In a sci-fi movie you’d easily be afforded enough time to pass it onto at least one or two people, even once the danger is known. In real life, if someone is even suspected of having a deadly, contagious condition they’re immediately isolated. If people just followed quarantine procedure properly, the events in films like “Alien” or “Life” wouldn’t have unfolded quite as catastrophically. Admittedly in “Alien”, Ripley does try her best to follow the safety guidelines, but in the series prequels they all seem more than happy to just carry on as though the obvious threat doesn’t exist. And on a related note, sci-fi folks are all too often all too eager to take off their helmets, as though breathable air is a given. Even if it is, breathable air doesn’t mean a planet is safe. There could be any number of unidentified pathogens and diseases out there. But, plot advancement conquers common sense, in this case.

Last of all, if the alien worlds aren’t scientifically suspicious, then the aliens themselves probably are. As with AI, we obviously don’t have much scientific proof that aliens would be this way or that way, or that they even exist – though the ever-increasing majority of scientists suggest that they do. Nevertheless, many have argued that large swathes of what science-fiction says about aliens is more than likely wrong. There’s a presumption that we’d be able to communicate in some way, and that the aliens would show up with either world domination in mind or a mission to share their technology, but some say that this simply would not be the case. Any alien visitors may be so technologically advanced and far-removed from what we’re used to in terms of intelligent life – i.e., ourselves – that they may be completely incomprehensible to us. And they’d probably feel quite indifferent about us. As for how they’d look, it’s clearly anyone’s guess – though we all have our personal sci-fi preferences, don’t we.

Ultimately, science-fiction is all about suspending your disbelief. But some films require suspending it far further than others. Even the esteemed “Interstellar” with its noted focus on realism makes a few mistakes here and there, and an intergalactic romp like “Star Wars” makes no apologies for its sensationalist science. All in, an apparent lack of accuracy has rarely made a sci-fi flick feel less enjoyable. After all, where would we be without our ridiculously mutated monsters, murderous robots, dramatic dogfights, and adorably friendly aliens from another world? Our DVD collections would definitely be quite dull!
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